Changes To Legal Aid In England And Wales
In the first year following the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) which came into effect in April 2013, access to civil legal aid has fallen by over 50%, with some categories of law having become almost inaccessible for state funding.
Legal Aid is the process of providing funding for legal advice and assistance to those who cannot afford their own lawyer to represent them in court. Since its establishment in 1949 it has helped countless individual cases and ended suffering on numerous occasions where otherwise the victim would not have been heard or listened to.
In addition to LASPO, the budget for criminal legal aid has also been cut by £215m as of April 2014, which had prompted a huge number of barristers to withdraw their labour and stage peaceful protests for the first time in known history.
LASPO actually reverses the notion that legal aid is accessible for all civil cases and has actually become an act where only particular categories of law qualify and only if they meet certain criteria. A variety of categories have been taken out of scope for legal aid, including Family cases where there is no substantial proof of forced marriage or child abduction, domestic violence, immigration cases not involving asylum or detention, welfare benefit cases (the exception being if an appeal is made to the upper tribunal or high court) and a whole host of other categories.
Social welfare and family law are among those most affected, with the number of civil cases granted funding dropped by 80% for social welfare and 60% for family law. As this funding is for representation and/or legal advice, this is a worrying fact for many families in need of legal assistance, particularly in the case of forced marriage claims or domestic violence cases.
Although mental health cases remain in the scope for legal aid this is still quite a significant change and is worrying for many members of the public who cannot afford their own legal fees. Although the Ministry of Justice has made claims that these cuts are in order to prevent undeserving claimants from receiving legal aid, like many of these schemes this will often only serve to further isolate those that truly need assistance.
There have even been implications that a lack of legal aid is in fact resulting in more court cases as a side effect of individual parties having no access to early advice. People can end up in court in cases where problems could have easily been resolved in the earlier stages of proceedings, which in turn costs taxpayers more and wastes valuable time.
These cuts have had at least one positive effect, which is that the general public are coming to realise that essential assistance with everyday legal problems such as housing and employment law cases is far less available and this is providing them with the knowledge and the means to make their voices heard. With many polls in effect showing that less of the public is prepared to support these cuts, we may yet see a change in LASPO for the better, in order to help bring back essential advice and legal assistance to those who truly need it.
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